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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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The Biggest, Baddest, Boldest Squonk Opera Yet

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It’s a couple of weeks before opening, and Steve O’Hearn is fussing unmercifully. “This is the hard time,” he says, fiddling with his sax, “putting all the thousand details together. The easy, fun times,” he says, “are the beginning and the end. Coming up with the ideas, then performing it. The middle,” he shakes his head.

Sitting with his creative partner, composer-pianist-accordionist Jackie Dempsey, in their rehearsal space – a Pitcairn storefront of all places – Squonk Opera’s genii loci are fitting together the details of their latest – and arguably greatest, or at least largest, or maybe just the loudest – onslaught. With a 40-foot-high radio tower, scissor-lifts, and platforms, 16 performers, and enough speakers to rattle your fillings, Squonk Opera’s Astro-Rama will play four nights, October 15-18, Schenley Plaza, Oakland. Part of Pittsburgh 250 – well, what isn’t, these days? – Astro-Rama will also coincide with Oakland’s first light-up night – pow! all the lights will switch on, à là Downtown’s famous November cousin. There’s also a real lunar rover -- and, well, it’s Squonk Opera, so who knows what else? It’s all free, and family-friendly, so come early and BYOLC (Bring Your Own Lawn Chairs.)

Such goings-on are Squonk Opera de rigueur, so they’re not taking any of it too seriously. Indeed, O’Hearn feels duty bound to show a visitor around the fab Pitcairn space, notably the photos – actual photos, mind you – taken of UFOs fallen in the area. Some are 15-20-feet apiece, most are guarded by what he calls “Agency men.” Obviously, O’Hearn adds, there’s a concerted, ongoing attempt to communicate with Earth, and the attempt is being thwarted by the nefarious powers that are.

“Squonk Opera,” he intones, “has decided to respond. To give voice to all the earthlings.” Representing nothing less than Humanity Itself, Squonk Opera will “broadcast the message to the universe. We have a group of believers, Astroramorians. That’s why the show is called Astro-Rama.”

Well of course.

The Full Catastrophe
Founded 16 years ago by a couple of bored superstars, with music, theater, and design backgrounds, Dempsey and O’Hearn set out to create their own multidisciplinary performance art – a blend of Talking Heads, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson. “We were interested in a theater created from sound and image,” they’ve written. “We were also inspired by a rust-belt love of spectacle and humor -- we were competing with football, catholic ritual, and beer-fed bar bands.” It all added up to “an ongoing desire to make interdisciplinary work that is accessible to a broad and diverse public.”

Playing at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, they schleped six people, instruments, props – as Zorba says, “the full catastrophe.” There they might have been stranded to Squonk ad infinitum if not for City Theatre’s legendary impresario Marc Masterson, who commissioned a version of the George Romero classic Night of the Living Dead: The Opera. That was 1995, and adding the emerging army of Squonkheads, Nightheads, horror freaks, theatre buffs, and generally whacky folk, lines for tickets went around the block. Squonk Opera had arrived.

Playing packed houses for a month, receiving national notice, garnering grants, Squonk Opera was on its way – right to a junk yard, this one under the Glenwood Bridge, where they staged their second large production, Forgotten Works, tackling such standard operatic fare as “consumption, waste, and recycling”; using cranes, demolished cars, and metal shearers as part of the performance.

By century’s end they were off to the Great White Way, for Bigsmörgåsbørdwünderwerk, more fantasy-horror, which did wonderfully well Off-Broadway but more or less bombed in Midtown. (Perhaps it was a wee bit outré for the blue-hair Broadway crowd.) Add to the mix Inferno, the Squonk version of the lingering Centralia, PA, mine fire seen through the lens of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and, most recently, Put Your Hometown's Name Here: The Opera, filling in the blanks with history, interviews, and music about Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Albany, St. Louis – and Scotland, Belgium, Germany, even Korea, where the Squonkers seem to be all the rave. “We wanted to make new works,” Dempsey says of their world tour. “We didn’t want to make one work and clone it.”

Now it’s back home, with their families and affordable spaces, to a region both Dempsey and O’Hearn praise for technological innovation as well as touring access -- a day from Chicago, New York, and Atlanta.

Now it’s Astro-Rama, Squonk Opera’s first large-scale outdoor event that will, ah, attempt to contact far-flung galaxies. With the original score by Dempsey, and props and sets constructed by O’Hearn in his West Deer digs, “we wanted to do a subject that related to being out there,” he says, “that played off the grandeur of being outside. That related to what it is to be human.”

As they put it, “Astro-Rama will be a self-portrait as a species and will explore the culture of ‘belief’ and what it means to be part of the larger universe.” Playing in what they call the galactic frequency of B-flat, 16 performers “will compose a visceral message from our species and our planet, power up, tilt the dish toward towards 51 Pegasus (the first planet outside our solar system discovered by humans), and transmit.”

A little too cutting edge for kiddies? “This will be as accessible as a fireworks show,” O’Hearn promises.

Still, he grumps, putting together all the different parts – the lights, scaffolds, music, and so on “is difficult and complex. We’ve made our bed and we’re sleeping in it now.”

“Not restfully,” Dempsey laughs.

“It’s hard work,” O’Hearn shakes his head. “There are a zillion little details. And it all has to be truckable, and capable of being set up in a day. The large screen alone has 4,000 pounds of lateral push in a wind.” O’Hearn pauses. “I hope the aliens understand.”

A visitor assures them that they will, then asks if they’re thinking about the next show.

Sure, Dempsey says. “It’s going to be smaller than this one. And inside.”

“Intimate,” O’Hearn nods.

“Cozy they call it in real estate,” Dempsey adds.

They both laugh.

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Abby Mendelson’s latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

Images courtesy Drayton Foltz

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